Santepheap in Siem Reap
“Do you sing?” Srey Mom asks me expectantly.
“Yes! I love to sing.” I tell her.
She gets a big smile on her face and runs into her bedroom. She comes back with a guitar and asks, “Will you sing for me?”
“Ok…” I reply hesitantly, “What can you play?”
“Blank Space!” She exclaims.
During our travels I’ve discovered one, universally true fact – everyone loves Taylor Swift. Even kids in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
I laugh a little bit, and say “alright, let’s do it!” Then the two of us start belting out the lyrics to Blank Space while Srey Mom plays the guitar.
One week ago, I had no idea that I would be here. And by “here” I mean Cambodia. When we left Bali, Indonesia we traveled for a few days to Singapore, a small country on the edge of Malaysia. It’s known for being pristine, expensive and a bit severe. For example, it’s illegal to chew gum in Singapore, because someone might spit it out on the street and leave an unintended blemish on the city’s stepford-ish facade. If you do happen to commit the aforementioned crime, the punishment can range from a $300 fine to 24 strokes with a cane. That’s right, you can be caned.
But all of those intense rules seem to work, because the city itself is gorgeous. There are hundreds of glistening buildings, a huge waterfront area and the world’s only “SuperTree Grove.”
But after three days in Singapore, we knew it was time to move on. The only question was – to where? From Singapore, we could go literally anywhere in Southeast Asia. We debated between Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Vietnam. There are amazing sites to see in each of these countries, but something just didn’t feel right.
Rachel and I have been backpacking for nearly four months, and Katie for almost three. And while this journey is a once in a lifetime experience, I’m getting a little… tired. Tired of packing up my backpack, tired of flying to new cities, tired of figuring out new train systems, and tired of not having simple pleasures like popcorn and scissors (seriously, try to cut something without scissors, you’ll see what I mean!).
After talking to the girls, it became obvious that we were all feeling the same way and were craving a different type of experience. So we submitted our plans to God and asked Him to open doors to let us serve in some way. A few web-searches later, I found an orphanage in Cambodia that needed volunteers!
I coordinated with their director, and we booked a plane ticket from Singapore to Phnom Penh, Cambodia for the same night. Cambodia wasn’t even on our radar, so we showed up knowing… NOTHING.
During our first few days in Phnom Penh, we learned a lot about the country. First, we learned that the primary means of transportation is by Tuk Tuk. Basically a scooter with a cart pulled behind it. We also learned that there are no traffic laws in Cambodia. You can drive the wrong way on the wrong side of the road and no one cares.
During our first few days in Cambodia, I was immediately struck by the drastic economic disparity in the country. I mean, I saw a cart pulled by oxen parked next to a new, fully loaded Range Rover in Phnom Penh. At first glance, it seems like the middle class doesn’t exist here. People are either extremely poor or extremely wealthy.
The cause of this is tied to the country’s history. In 1975, a Communist Dictator named Pol Pot came to power in Cambodia. Like most dictators, he had a plan to create his own “Utopian” society. In his mind the key to his success was to eliminate all traces of Capitalism by replacing the “city dwellers” with the “old people” who farmed and lived in the countryside.
In order to implement his plan for a perfect society, Pol Pot ordered the secret slaughter of an estimated three million Cambodians. The population of the country was eight million at the time. On the outskirts of Phnom Penh, there’s a place called the “Killing Fields.” It’s a compound where “prisoners” were taken to be executed during Pol Pot’s reign. Shovels, hoes, hammers and bamboo sticks were used to kill men, women and children from Cambodian cities. Now, with over 20,000 remains, this site is one of the largest mass graves in the world.
As we walked through the site, we listened to an audio tour detailing the history of the genocide and resulting civil war. We followed pathways through the graves and eerily stepped over human bones that were surfacing through the dirt. Nearly 40% of the Cambodian population was killed during Pol Pot’s reign. It’s a horrifying reality that the country is still recovering from.
Every Cambodian life was touched by the genocide and the twenty-year civil war that followed. Because of broken families and financial corruption one of the major issues in Cambodia, and especially Siem Reap, is the overpopulation of children.
And that’s why we’re here.
We’re volunteering with the Cambodian Children’s House of Peace or “Santeheap” in Khmer, which means “Peace.” It’s a non-governmental organization that provides a peaceful home and opportunities for children who wouldn’t have them otherwise. This morning we taught English and played with local children whose parents can’t afford to send them to school.
The children are so sweet and thankful to learn. But the most amazing part of this experience is seeing how God knows our strengths and sends us exactly where we’re needed. After meeting with the Director of the orphanage yesterday, it became clear that we he really needed was help with a fundraising strategy, website maintenance and financial planning. Things that Rachel, Katy and I are pretty good at!
Though we’re only here for a short time, it’s my hope is that we’ll have a lasting impact on the lives of these children. And by using our strengths, God can work through us to help this organization impact more children’s lives. I never expected Cambodia, but as I look at Srey Mom, laughing and singing, this is exactly where I want to be. We don’t speak much of the same language, but it doesn’t really matter. Besides, some things are just universal… like love, peace, and Taylor Swift.
If you’d like to learn more about the Cambodian Children’s House of Peace, or make a donation, please visit their website: http://www.santepheap.org or Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/santepheap.org/.